At first Thom Jackson wanted to be an engineer, then a lawyer, then a businessman. Today he combines those three industries into one through his work at Knowles, the leading global supplier of advanced micro acoustic solutions, where he is senior vice president, general counsel, and secretary. “It was kind of an accidental career path,” he says.
The path that led him to Knowles may have taken many turns, but Jackson says he is now perfectly suited for his role at the company, which has annual sales of $1.3 billion with customers in mobile communications, consumer electronics, medical technology, military, telecom infrastructure, and industrial markets. “The spectrum of skills I bring to the table is fairly unique,” he says.
“The toughest part of my job is knowing when to step back and see the full picture. Then you have to make decisions in the gray area. Often you are making decisions that are judgment calls.”
Before coming to Knowles, Jackson was vice president and assistant general counsel at Jabil Circuit, an $18 billion Fortune 500 electronics design and manufacturing company that is one of Apple’s partners in making iPhones. He has spent most of his twenty-four-year legal career working for electronics and engineering companies, combining his many interests.
Jackson studied mechanical and electrical engineering at Drexel University in Philadelphia, but after a few years working as an engineer, he questioned if it was the right path for him. He went onto get both an MBA and a JD from Villanova University on the way to finding his dream job.
While the Knowles Corporation started as a hearing aid company sixty years ago, it has advanced to the point where Jackson says that nearly 80 percent of cell phones on the market use technology from Knowles in their microphones and speakers. Based in Itasca, Illinois, the Knowles team relentlessly works to innovate new and exciting technology for the audio field.
For years, the company was a part of Dover Corporation, but in February 2014, Knowles spun out into its own public company, which is where Jackson came on the scene. He led the transition from a department-of-one company to Knowles becoming its own entity.
“On day one when we spun out, we were going to be ready,” Jackson says. That included filing all the right paperwork, setting up bank accounts, checking compliance in multiple countries, arranging new benefits plans for employees, soothing privacy concerns, following guidelines of the New York Stock Exchange filings and more. “Every possible legal area you can imagine, there were issues to be dealt with,” he says.
Today, Jackson also deals with global legal affairs and compliance, which includes operating facilities on four continents. He advises CEO Jeffrey Niew and the company’s board of directors as well as sets the legal tone for the company’s more than 10,000 international employees.
The best part, Jackson says, is being exposed to different kinds of law. “It could be a contract issue today, an antitrust dispute the next day,” he says. “I like working with our international business leaders and confronting the global issues that impact us around the world.”
Jackson recently oversaw the $85 million purchase of Audience Inc., a complex transaction and his first cash tender offer of another company. The sale closed July 1, and Jackson says he is excited for what the deal means to Knowles. Audience Inc. uses advanced algorithms and technology for noise suppression and cancellation as well as motion detection and motion sensing.
“When you pair that technology with our components at Knowles, it’s a game changer,” he says. Down the road, this could lead to a smart phone that recognizes voice commands beyond who to call and what to look up on the Internet. It may also have other consumer applications, such as an intelligent house that turns on the oven or the laundry on command through microphones in the home.
“Knowles is a tech leader, so we are constantly pushing the envelope in new industries and new products we hope to hit the market soon,” Jackson says. That includes technology called N’Bass, which improves acoustic quality on a smaller scale, as phones and devices get smaller, while maintaining the customers’ expectation of clearer audio. Staying true to its roots, Knowles is also working to bring hearing aids to the next generation with modern technology that can link directly to a smart phone, initiate a call, and control the volume.
These developments are not only the work of someone on the business side, according to Jackson. He says business and law are inseparable in today’s world. “They are absolutely intertwined,” he says. “There are legal and business ramifications to every decision I make and I understand that. The tough part is finding the right balance between the two.”
With so many different responsibilities and areas of work, Jackson said there’s no such thing as an average day on the job, but that’s what keeps it exciting. “I’ve always tried to be perceived as not just a lawyer, but someone who is part of the business team,” Jackson says. An understanding of financial statements, profit margins, and other factors helps with how he advises his business colleagues in their day-to-day work.
His unique background also allows him to see all sides of many different issues and guide Knowles toward the best decisions. However, his diverse experiences don’t make his role any easier. “The toughest part of my job is knowing when to step back and see the full picture,” Jackson says. “Then you have to make decisions in the gray area. Often, you are making decisions that are judgment calls. There could be any number of right answers and it’s not black or white.”
Making those hard decisions is where Jackson’s skills as a leader come into play. He has worked hard to create a direct and approachable relationship with his team and cites collaboration as a practical solution in decision making. “Be honest with your team about when you don’t know something or when you aren’t sure,” Jackson says. “Especially when there is a judgment call to make.”